Montage of Service Personnel from the films

Background to the Calling Blighty Films

‘Calling Blighty’

Calling Blighty is a series of short films made in 1944-46 of individual servicemen and women in the Far East sending personal messages home to their family and friends. These poignant filmed messages were shown in local cinemas, to the mixed laughter and tears of the specially invited audiences. A Message Home is a project to try to find as many families and veterans as possible, to bring them together to show the films again, and to tell their stories.

Of nearly 400 issues made, only 64 are known to survive. Of these, 26 feature service personnel from the Greater Manchester and wider North West areas, and were found complete with the sheets of contact details showing the names and addresses of the family and friends who were invited to the screenings. You can find here a searchable database of over 800 names, with clips.

Alongside the attempt to trace people, a new artists’ film by Steve Hawley has been made, summing up these unique and compelling films. They are partly stilted, occasionally emotional, but mostly stiff upper lip testimonies, filmed direct to camera often in one take - sometimes funny, and always very moving. In a way, they predict video communications such as Skype, but also offer a window on the understated courage of servicemen who had endured the long separation from their home – in both time and space – often since the start of the war.

This new film, and some of the original Calling Blighty issues, was screened on Monday 23rd November 2015 at HOME – Manchester’s new cross arts venue. The project appreciates the support of Manchester School of Art, HOME, Imperial War Museums, Manchester &; Lancashire Family History Society and Archives+

How and why the films were made

The background to the Calling Blighty film series was very thoroughly researched by Paul Sargent while he was Deputy Keeper of Film at the Imperial War Museum – the following brief summary is entirely based on Paul’s excellent work.

Between April 1944 and April 1946, there were 391 issues of Calling Blighty produced – that would be 9,775 messages with an average of c25 callers per issue! 64 are currently known to have survived, recording some 1,200 messages. None of these surviving issues came from official sources, but seem to have been retained locally in the communities where they were screened, and passed to film archives when they turned up.

Produced by the Directorate for Army Welfare in India during the Second World War, the Calling Blighty series of films was essentially a response to issues of low morale and poor welfare provision amongst service personnel stationed in the Far East – in India, Burma, Singapore, Malaya... This was a genuine attempt to improve communication with families back home who may not have seen their loved ones for as many as six years. Welfare amenities were poor, home leave was not possible, mail services were erratic, and the long separations were painful and difficult. Compared to those in the European theatre of war, these troops were truly the ‘Forgotten Army’.

British Movietone and Pathe had both used the idea briefly in newsreel stories, and Pathe had coined the name Calling Blighty after Movietone introduced the idea calling it Messages Home. However it was not really ‘news’ in their terms and it was suggested that it might be taken up officially, which it eventually was – by the Directorate of Services Kinematography in Delhi. Studio and location units recorded the messages, then edited, and despatched the finished films back to Blighty – four a week on average, and they would take six to eight weeks to arrive.

To produce an issue of Calling Blighty, the men – and a very few women (who served in very small numbers in the Far East) – would be brought together either in the studio or in their stations and camps. Crucially, they had to be from the same town, but they were not necessarily from the same regiments and often did not know each other. Messages were delivered direct to camera, no script or restrictions were imposed, though it seems prompts were in place as many use similar phrases, and since the messages were entirely one-way, they were usually short as the caller quickly ran out of things to say. When the individual messages had been delivered everyone would get together at the end to say cheerio, or sing a chorus - She's a Lassie from Lancashire was a popular choice. A welfare officer would collect the name, rank, serial number and regiment of each individual, and the names and addresses of family and friends who they wished to invite to see the film back home in the local cinema. As it took up to eight weeks for the films to arrive, there was time to send letters of invitation and receive replies and numbers of attendees. Local cinemas would usually provide the screenings for free, often with hundreds in the audience.

After the surrender of Japan in August 1945, transport and forces were required for occupation and to deal with POWs, so there was no return home for these service personnel and some remained well into 1946. By April the film crews had dispersed and production ceased.

How the collection arrived at the NWFA

In 1984, in response to a call from contractors working on refurbishment in Manchester Town Hall basement, a visit was hastily arranged, and some 40 reels of 35mm film were retrieved from the jaws of the skip! With only a superficial look at the can labels, it soon became evident that this included a very significant find – the majority were labelled "Calling Blighty". The Archive already held two issues of the Calling Blighty series (Oldham and St Helens/Liverpool), and it was well known that these were rare survivors. But even more exciting was the unique discovery of paperwork in the cans which listed the callers, and the names and addresses of the family and friends who would have been invited to come and see the films in their home town local cinemas many weeks after they were shot. Further detailed inspection and viewing revealed that there were 23 issues and this more than doubled the number known to be held in the UK’s film archives, with 25 now held at the NWFA, recording over 600 messages.

Transfer of the original 35mm reels to the Imperial War Museum film archive was arranged – a specialist national repository with all the expertise and facilities to undertake the essential preservation and copying work, and in due course access copies were received. Over the next few years, as time allowed, staff at the NWFA completed the work of transcribing the details from the foolscap carbon copies of the lists of callers and their families, creating a database of names to search in response to occasional enquiries. There are 602 records – and the promise of rewarding research for anyone wishing to explore this untapped resource.

External interest in the films waxed and waned with WW2 anniversaries - the films, and extracts from them, have been seen now and again in museums in the NW and screened at our film shows, with the odd appearance in regional TV, radio and press. With this new online database and clips, A Message HOME is an opportunity to open up this extraordinary and rare record of the long-distance communications from the Forgotten Army to their families back in Blighty. Although rather like a one-way Skype, there are emotional moments amongst the stiff, sometimes comical, delivery of the messages, which made a direct connection back home in the cinemas where the families watched with tears and laughter.

Other archives holding "Calling Blighty" films

Further Calling Blighty issues are accessible in other collections around the UK, and it is hoped that more issues might emerge as a result of our project. To the best of my knowledge, there are c10 at the BFI National Archive covering Wolverhampton, Walsall, Sheffield, Wigan and Bolton; two at the East Anglian Film Archive (Norwich); one at the South East Screen Archive (Brighton); one at the Scottish Screen Archive (Glasgow); one at Wessex Film & Sound Archive (Southampton); four at the Imperial War Museum (Dundee and Warrington); and possibly two at the Cinema Museum in London. Contact details can be found here. If you know the whereabouts of any others then we would love to hear from you!

Marion Hewitt, August 2015